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Monday, January 9, 2012

Context 1: It's not about the Kalachakra

Kalachakra and Visvamata

I've argued for some time that Tibetan Buddhism is often too culturally other to be easily assimilated into western form. The political side of the argument rests on my sense that westerners practicing or attempting to practice the uniquely Tibetan form of Buddhist tantra are indulging in exoticism and a kind of reification of Tibet as Shangri-la and Tibetans as magical. Factor in westerners who wear chubas and native garb and the cycle of cultural appropriation is complete.

On the personal side, I balked at delving deeper into Tibetan Buddhadharma for its overpopulation of deities, bodhisattvas, buddhas, dharmapalas, and 108,000 practices. I also balked and continue to do so at the various warnings that if you do this, XXX will happen. If not in this life, then in the next or in some future life.

The biggest issue may be the question: does it work?

Now, there are several rubs here. Starting from the last and working back, I'm willing to say, “yes, it does”. I would argue I've become a better person as a result of Buddhist practice in general, but I have to add that, in fact, the lojong (mind-training) and tantric supports are extremely helpful. The next question would have to be why?

The mind-training aspect works because you have to reflect on the suffering of others and oneself and where it comes from. In short order, that suffering comes from the human mind becomes pretty evident. How to deal with that can be done in any number of ways; meditating on others' sufferings, generating the desire to help others and so on are good ways to start. The whole construct of the bodhisattva is predicated on this. And the processes are referred to over and over again in Tibetan Buddhism (with their precedents in Indic Buddhism going back to Shakyamuni himself.)

The tantric supports, the sadhanas, the pujas, etc. tend to open the heart and the mind in a kind of esthetic engagement with purposefully producing states of mind and visualization to cultivate an awareness of the insubstantiality of the phenomenal world and coming to work directly to see the “I” as a fiction. Additionally, through the iterative practice of whicever specific yidam or object of meditation one chooses or has received, I see where it's entirely possible to gain a direct understanding of the emptiness of inherent existence of phenomena. The upshot of this is loosening the mind from fixation on a false sense of self and weakening the emotional contraction that surrounds the attachment to an ego that is more detrimental than anything else.

Out of all this arises a kind of contentment (at least for me) and I think the idea of enlightenment being attained is surely possible. The adventitious elements of cherishing self over others, anger, clinging and so on fall away.

But not without a certain amount of elbow grease.

Some of that elbow grease includes questioning over and over again the very why one practices. I don't come from a particularly devotional background nor do I particularly care for the idea that rituals will in and of themselves guarantee results. I've done this stuff long enough that a practice is only effective to the amount of effort you put into understanding it and doing it.

More and more, I find myself drawn back to less smoke and mirrors. I came to Bodhgaya to experience the Kalachakra empowerment, which is lovely, but not necessarily to add another notch to my tantric pistol. I've been much more drawn to the teachings His Holiness gave prior to the initiation itself and have been content to listen to the empowerment outside the tent grounds where there are way too many people.

Reports of fist fights and general ugliness of one crowd-goer to another are circulating and if what I saw a few days ago when the crowds were fewer is any indication, I completely believe these to be true. A nun yelled a friend of mine that she couldn't sit in a given place because she was saving the space for her friends; monks have been pretty rude across the board in sitting or walking on people and in general, one has to ask where's the dharma in this?

This same friend of mine reported the frenzies people were thrown into when kusha grass and protection cords (bsrung skud) were distributed. She received neither because people were literally wresting them away from each other and hording them for their compatriots. She received her blades of grass from a kindly Tibetan man as she was leaving the grounds.

But the point is that Tibetan Buddhism is rife with “things” and “stuff”. Mantras, prostrations, images, mudras, tormas, cords, etc. that in themselves do nothing. Again, it's what you bring to it. That people are fighting over a red cord that the Dalai Lama and some other monks recited prayers and mantras over is beyond childish. It has nothing to do with generating a kind heart or a more flexible mind; if anything, it seems to show how pervasive attachment to things people can be.

All of this circulates around the second point above. My personal engagement with Tibetan Buddhism has been fruitful for me, but I have to ask if it's as binding as it once was. I find many of the practices beautiful and practical, but I tend to pull back and question the primacy of the lama when I see the lengths to which people go to not ask questions, to not challenge both themselves and the lama on matters of why I should believe that Buddha Shakyamuni taught tantra when there is no historical evidence that he did? or why should I believe that if I stand up from doing prostrations by pushing myself off my fists, I'll be reborn as an animal with hooves? or any number of other unverifiable things?

The primacy of the lama, however, I'm relatively comfortable with. In a non-tantric relationship, you're dealing (generally) with very lovely, sterling individuals. In a tantric context, it's helpful to use the lama as the focal point as whatever yidam or deity to be able to extend that vision to all sentient beings. But I draw the line at toadying and fetching and the faux abasement I take I'm seeing when I see westerners go moony over just anyone in a robe. I'll let the Tibetans slide because this is their culture and this is where I have to step aside.

But there's something annoying in the extreme to the valorization of the monk or nun because they're wearing robes. The past few days, His Holiness has reiterated that you can wear the robes all you want. That doesn't necessarily make you a monk or nun.

In fact, His Holiness has also reiterated several other things, including paying attention to the teachings and not relying on mantras and prayers; practicing what's in the texts and teachings and not reciting and prostrating mindlessly. I had to laugh when I saw a bunch of Tibetans prostrating while he was saying this. I have to look away when I see westerners doing the same thing.

The downside to the relationship is more than the outward fawning, it's the lack of critical insight and awareness and the utter blind devotion that comes with this. Not to mention the sense that “well, my lama's the best, and all others suck.” That's just tragic.

These are relatively superficial but telling points to be aware of. These can also be grounds for further training: how does one watch one's own mind and emotions when encountering such behavior? This is what I find most helpful about lojong; you have to turn away from the mote in another's eye and deal with the beam in one's own.

This last brings me to the wider consideration. I just pulled on a metaphor from Christianity and without thinking, have pretty much validated Buddhism as a religion. But is it? This is a question that is more specific to the Euroamerican mindset than that on the soil of which Buddha was raised. Stripped of its devotional trappings, Tibetan Buddhism is “just Buddhism”. Take away the deities, the yidams, the dharmapalas, the tantra, and so on, and you have the four noble truths, the eightfold path, dependent origination and so on.

We return to a Buddhism free of cultural trappings and praxis where the greatest controversy might be, isn't this enough? Can we not just get back to the Pali canon and simply employ straightforward meditation to gain enlightenment? Some people are trying to do just that; but even this calls into question what we mean by “just Buddhism”.

The issue of the Pali-as-earliest-Buddhism has been questioned by Jan Nattier among others; the rise of the Bodhisattva ideal is implicit in that canon, and we understand now that, as she points out in “A Few Good Men”, the “bodhisattvas” lived alongside with the arhats. So there wasn't the original pejorative component of “hinayana” versus “mahayana” early on. My assumption is that the more “inclusive motivation” arose over a period of years (decades? centuries?) until there was more of an obvious split and wherein the Mahayana sutras came to be set down, etc.

Tantra is thornier, in some ways. It has certainly has pre-Buddhist and for that matter, “Hindu” (I'm hesitant to apply that nomenclature to the great edifice of Indian religious tradition, but it'll have to do) periods. By that, I think tantra has its roots in the cthonic, so-called shamanic traditions and didn't become something called “tantra” until much later.

Questions continue to plague, though. I hear charges of Orientalism, fuzzy thinking, and in general, a lack of critical awareness hurled at those who practice Tibetan Buddhism, and I don't think those charges are without merit, if we're talking about Buddhist philosophy and praxis excluding devotional and/or so-called more advanced practices like tantra.

I myself am constantly on the fence. One more day of the blissed-out, passive-aggressive practitioner, and I'm willing to drop this all in a heartbeat. And yet, and yet, what keeps me here? Not in Bodhgaya, but in Buddhism in general and specifically, this family of the Buddhist tree?

Is it the clouds that configured into a dharma-eye over Vermont on my way to a Thanksgiving Tara retreat? Is it the palpable physical warmth that emanates from a venerable old rinpoche? Is it the dreams, the teachings in dreams? Or is it simply the sense of overall well-being and lack of concern about what to do next? Or is it, even better, the little bit by little bit by which I pull my head out of my ass?

The last two questions are key. Amittedly, I was never raised to be overly concerned about the future. I took to heart “behold the lilies of the field; how they toil not, neither do they spin” bit; and that, frankly, I've always felt “at home in the universe”, to crib from Bucky Fuller. I don't know if the Dharmakaya is God, either as Buddhists conceive the Dharmakaya, or God as Christian mystics and contemplatives might conceive God, but I suspect the two are very close to one another. I still tend to see God as principle, as life, and as love. Not, I stress, some anthropomorphic person, but perhaps best described as the Person of persons or the Being of beings. This already touches on the thorny issue that Buddhism isn't an ontology but an epistemology; however, once you start bandying about words like the Dharmakaya, you're building a metaphysical foundation, one which has parallels in many, many places.

Why is that so, I wonder? I think it's because of something innate in humanity. Something that knows something that is not bound by definition or slave to words. Buddhism excels at breaking down the limitations of the word to get at the experience behind them, especially in the realm of Zen, Chan, Mahamudra and Dzogchen; but I would argue, as well, in the fields of shamatha and vipashyana (even though I know this is to kick a hornet's nest in other ways).

With Buddhism, I find a rich philosophical tradition and while I prefer to keep it simple, it's comforting to know that there are other practices to engage in that work to free up the mind when stuck and in my experience, greatly open oneself up to others in ways that may not seem readily apparent. This is where I find, periodically, that my head while stuck grows less so over a period of time. I'd rather it come unstuck all at once, but I don' t know that I have the real urge to do the work to make it so and there's the biggest rub.

“The good that I would I do not; what I would not, that I do” is not an unfamiliar sentiment in all the world's traditions, I'd guess. Once again, the critical light that you learn to throw on your mind and motivations in Buddhism is important. It's a matter of either finding the switch or leaving it on once you do. I play on-off games with that switch, myself.

But what about dakinis, dharma guardians, demons and the rest that populate Indo-Tibetan Buddhism? What about them? Why not see them as aspects of the mind? It matters little if a propensity is generated by unconscious complexes as in modern psychology/psychiatry or if such a propensity is the result of “latent tendecies” (bag chag), as in Mahayana Buddhism. It doesn't matter if it's the result of spirits, then, either. What matters is that one take ownership of the propensity and see that it can only come into being if the action is engaged in that is based on it and that ultimately, one can arrive at a point to overcoming that propensity.

I like chocolate. Maybe I like chocolate because of some intrauterine habit of my mother's. Maybe I like chocolate because of some repression complex. Maybe I like chocolate because I'm karmically linked to some choco-demon that propels me to eat it all the time. But I get fat and other bad things happen; then what do I do? Suppose I go to psyhotherapy, or a doctor, or an exorcist and none of these things work? Then, I know that all that's left is either give into despair and chocolate myself to death or I look at the mind and the phenomena that I'm clinging to.

I really, really like chocolate. But it winds me up in the hospital. I start to look at the matter more seriously: it's not worth my life to consume another Mars Bar. Things fall into place because I understand now that it doesn't matter where the origin of the malady is but that it is and that there's a solution. (This is a variation on the Buddha – and others – asking if a man has an arrow stuck in his shoulder, is he going to be more concerned about who shot it, the arrow's trajectory, what kind of wood the shaft is made of or does what matters most to him is that the arrow is removed).

Similarly, I've experienced this firsthand. I don't want or need to go into the more picturesque details for my life; suffice it to say that I've calmed down a lot owing to several factors, not the least of which is meditation and daresay, lojong practice and some of the tantras that I've done over the years.

This last bit needs to be looked at a little more. Tantra means something like continuity or thread or the warp and woof of a fabric, so there's this sense of understanding how wisdom and method come together practically in a performed process of generating a visualization of oneself as an enlightened being, generating that sense of enlightenment and compassion and then dissolving it all into “emptiness” or rather, luminosity (to my mind); arising from the performed practice, that mind which did the generation and dissolution is still present, that awareness of things as they are, unelaborated.

To be sure, I think this works in meditation without an object, as well. It's up to the individual to find what works; and here comes another rub.

In the old days, and even today, there's the injunction to do the preliminaries and work oneself up to some higher practice. But what about people who go for looking into the mind itself in other traditions? I've met some Theravada practitioners who are every bit as motivated to help other sentient beings (if not more so than) as many so called Mahayana practitioners. They don't do elaborate visualizations, they don't chant a lot of mantras (though they do some); but the proof the pudding is in the taste and a lot of these people are socially active and aware in a way that humbles me.

I frankly prefer to keep it simple. I don't want to discuss past or future lives. I don't want to get stuck on worrying about someone else's behavior, either. If something disturbs me, I want to get to that point where I deal with the disturbance at point of contact and can act appropriately from there. I talk a good game of compassion because a lot of people tell me I'm a nice guy, but I also know I can be petty, small minded and defensive and have plenty of material of my own to use! And here, I don't think it matters what I practice, just that I do it.

Today, my friend Sanjay, the owner of the Heritage came by. I was cranky and not feeling terribly well, but he was concerned and later sent a driver to take me back to the hotel from the guest house where I'm staying. I figured I better tell him that, really, I'm fine with and need to rest. At the very least, I thought I'd have some tea and grab some food to take back.

I told him as much. I appreciated his kindness but I really wanted to hang out and rest. He replied and not with a little wisdom that it's better to get going and not get stuck inside. I concurred, but honest, I was going to get up and out. Anyway, I let the matter slide and some of the guys at the hotel were likewise concerned. Then Anna came up.

Anna is a young Russian woman whose uncle needed medical attention right away. They had been at the guest house and moved to the hotel and her uncle was in extreme discomfort. Sanjay asked me to accompany him to go with him to the family and I hung outside the room for as long as I could before he asked me to come in.

On the bed, was a very large Russian man who seemed very congested and in some amount of pain. Standing over him was Jane (who I take to be his daughter or other niece) and over the course of a conversation, I disovered he has been a personal student of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He said that the Dalai Lama came to Moscow after Gorbachev had received the Nobel Peace Prize. There was the Dalai Lama and 200 KGB officers. He was one of them.

He had been attending the teachings over the past few days and after exposure to the elements and the unrelenting physical side of life with hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom weren't putting others before self, had come to this point of exhaustion, immobility and pain. This was not a wimp of a man, either.

Anna doted on him and I enjoyed seeing how wonderful this whole family was. Jane was funny and loving and while I couldn't say what I was doing there other than providing small talk, I was extremely happy to have met them all. Sanjay was extremely helpful and looked after his needs, calling for a doctor and medicine and even providing some massage for our most grateful friend. The women were so loving toward their uncle and thankful to Sanjay that I was moved to be there in the presence of all this affection. At most, I might have helped clarify some things for Anna and Sanjay, but other than that I was blessed just to be invited.

Anna's uncle showed us a small Shakyamuni statue that was a personal gift from His Holiness. It had been filled and consecrated and that was a treat to see. But it began to dawn on me that I was in the presence of a man who had surely made some major change in his life. As he said, he wasn't born a Buddhist.

After a bit, I realized I should go. I was still a little stuffed up, a little congested; but I did feel much better and so, took my leave. Maybe that's why I came? I don't know. It wasn't just a matter of it being nice to meet some people, but to actually see people care for each other so lovingly. The family, of course, but Sanjay wasn't leaving until the doctor arrived and everyone was feeling better. I was deeply touched by my friend's compassion.

So there's one of the limbs of the seven limbed prayer: rejoicing in the merit of others' good deeds. All of this can sound really sappy and it doesn't convey the fun we had, the spirited discussions that ensued and so on. But seriously, I wouldn't have traded this for anything.

As it is, I realized while I was sitting there, that there is something magical about Buddhism in general, in that it rather awakens you to the magic in life and the twin elements of compassion and wisdom. I'm really not here for the Kalachakra, as much as I was telling people. I'm really here to bear witness to the small joys that are taking place on a moment by moment basis.

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